Foul trouble

The Mavericks are losing games--and faith in head coach Jim Cleamons

Dick Motta enters Reunion Arena quietly, with no introduction or applause. The crowd doesn't even know he's on the floor; they pay him no mind as he visits with a few of his former players, retired Mavericks whose faces are so familiar we take them for granted.

Dressed in a warm-up jacket, wearing glasses, his face deep with wrinkles, the coach gives his players, Rolando Blackman and Brad Davis, a warm greeting--a hug, a reassuring hand on the shoulder. This is how old friends greet each other, or old Army buddies who haven't seen each other since...gosh, how long has it been?

After Motta says his hellos and how-are-yas, he retreats into the seats, taking his place in a row far above the Mavericks' bench. This is where the former coach of the Dallas Mavericks watched the November 26 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

When Motta walked onto the floor to say hello to Davis, now the color analyst for KLIF-AM, and Blackman, who was in town working the game for San Antonio TV, only a few longtime Mavericks employees noticed. They seemed genuinely excited to see the man who turned an expansion Mavericks team into a contender in only four years and who returned three years ago to see if he could work his voodoo one more time.

"Hey, is there a press conference tomorrow I should know about?" one staffer asked Tony Fay, the team's press liaison. Someone else wore a look that said, If only...

But no, Dick Motta, retired and living in Scottsdale, Arizona, was not in town to announce he was becoming the Mavs' head coach for the third time. He was here only to visit his new grandchild, and on this night, was just another fan in the empty seats--one of the 11,557 who turned out to watch the Mavericks stumble through yet another defeat.

"I don't know any of these guys," he says, pointing to the team on the floor below, where Erick Strickland, Samaki Walker, and a few other anonymous Mavericks do a little pre-game shoot-around. "I don't think anybody's left from when I was here [two years ago]. It's sad."

Though it's a team of strangers now, Motta still follows the Mavericks from Arizona. Yet he will not offer his opinion about this year's model, one that lost by 45 points one night then scored a franchise-low 62 points a few nights later. Motta will only say that he likes general manager Don Nelson--"He's a competitor."

He has absolutely nothing to offer about Jim Cleamons. "I have no comment about that," he says about the coach who replaced him at the end of the 1995-'96 season.

Dick Motta is perhaps the only man in Reunion who doesn't have anything to say about Jim Cleamons, who's about to overtake Barry Switzer for the local Coach of the Jeer award.

The fans despise this man who has, once more, turned Reunion Arena into a slaughterhouse. They boo Cleamons, call him names as he walks on and off the floor, shout obscenities from the cheap seats. They phone radio talk shows and wonder why he hasn't been fired yet. Indeed, on this very night, a KLIF van parked outside Reunion broadcasts a call-in show through enormous speakers. Fans walking in to the game are treated to one caller insisting that "this crap at Reunion has got to stop!" His voice echoes through the parking lot and into the warm, thick November night.

Welcome, Mavericks fans!
More to the point, Cleamons' own team has turned against him. They can hardly contain their dislike for the man, for his coaching system, for his touchy-feely brand of basketball. They blame Cleamons--and only Cleamons, refusing to bear any of the responsibility themselves--for this team's pitiful 4-11 record. They also want him fired, right freakin' now.

"Something's got to change," says one player after the Spurs game. "Someone's got to go." He doesn't say who, but take one guess.

Players insist this team is losing because of Cleamons' vaunted Triangle Offense, which demands players pass and pass and pass until they finally shoot the ball--if they ever shoot the ball. Cleamons continues to ram this system, which he learned during his five-year tenure as a Chicago Bulls assistant coach, down this team's throat, even though they repeatedly demand that he either ditch the Triangle or run it only part of the time, as the Milwaukee Bucks do.

"He's still on this Chicago Bulls thing, always saying how the Bulls couldn't run it either in the first year," one Maverick says. "Well, we ain't the Chicago Bulls. Michael Finley's a good player, but he isn't Michael Jordan."

Cleamons, of course, knows this. He also knows his job is on the line--it has been ever since the end of last season, when housecleaner Nelson wanted him axed and owner Ross Perot Jr. overruled the GM's desires. And yet Cleamons sticks with his Triangle, even though he is likely to cut himself on one of its sharp corners.

Though he looks weary, a little beaten-up--"I'm cryin' in my beer," he says, only half-jokingly, when asked how he's holding up--even after the loss to the Spurs, Cleamons still sounds as he did in the upbeat days before the season began. Back then, he spoke of "teaching" his players, of needing to turn five disparate young men into a cohesive unit of one, of optimism and hope.

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